Luxury packaging can be delivered with improved sustainability

As discussed in Gaynor’s previous blogs, cosmetics are often perceived as luxury products and as a result, many utilise elaborate and what can often be described as “excessive” packaging solutions to deliver their products. 

Whilst some products require multiple components and substrates to deliver the functionality required for the products they contain, in many cases, there are more sustainable options available.  I would like to see cosmetic brands and businesses investing in more sustainable materials and formats, not least as the EPR and plastic tax enforcement will come at a considerable cost unless positive change is delivered.  

There are many brands shouting about how their products are not tested on animals, are vegan friendly or use sustainable and responsibly sourced ingredients, but fewer display information on packaging sustainability credentials, and future goals. I would like to share some examples of concepts and brands that do this well and some that could do better. 

Refill products 

The cosmetic industry is responsible for creating 120 billion packaging units every year, so there is a huge opportunity to reduce single-use packaging. 

The refill concept has been around for some time now across many industries including Cosmetics, with significant growth over the past 2 years. Brands that have engaged with this solution have seen both a financial and environmental benefit as well as the ability to drive consumer loyalty.

Simon Furness, Aura

Refillable packaging formats can often result in the use of materials that cannot currently be recycled.  This is often necessary to ensure the format being refilled is robust to ensure it survives several refill uses and provides the consumer with a long-term solution.  Due to the fact that these formats are re-used, reliance on resources is reduced as is the need for single-use materials, thereby minimising waste overall. A positive move however, one that is only successful if all aspects of the supply chain are considered and data is compiled and analysed to verify and quantify the improvement.  

There is also a need for an additional piece of packaging for the item being refilled, provided this is not an instore refill option. These items can take many forms such as cartridges / pouches and again, may not be recyclable in all instances. In this instance, the environmental improvements are often realised due to the packs being light weight therefore having a lesser impact through the shipping process, and reducing overall emissions.  

The potential environmental benefits of refillable packaging solutions include reducing reliance on resources, reduction in carbon emissions and waste minimisation. In some cases, there can also be improvements for the brand and the consumer.  

Refillable products

Bramley hand wash is provided in a ‘home compostable’ refill pouch that the consumer decants into the hand wash bottle. It is claimed that the empty pouch can then decompose in your home compost in around 32 weeks. Whilst this may sound like a perfect solution to dealing with troublesome plastic components, there is no information to support the conditions required for the degradation process to be successful. At present, it is documented that only 3% of UK households engage with home composting1, again raising questions around whether home composting is the best solution. There is also the risk that if compostable products end up in the recycling bin that recycling streams can become contaminated.

The refill pouches come packaged in a cardboard envelope which is made using 100% recycled fibre and can be completed recycled at the kerbside. 

Image: Bramley

Eyeshadows, blushers, and highlighters which are usually presented in a single or multi colour pallets are another example of single use plastic which cannot be recycled at the end of its use. It is great to see some cosmetics brands using reusable pallets allowing for individual colour selection refills2. This solution gives consumers greater choice whilst minimising environmental impact.  This is likely to minimise not only packaging waste but also product waste, surely all consumers appreciate the freedom of choice that this solution offers. 

Male Grooming 

Male grooming is a category on the rise. As with traditional cosmetics, there is tiering in place from budget through to luxury brands, with the same approach from basic low-cost packaging, to elaborate and brand identity driven solutions, many with the same challenges as well as the same opportunities for sustainable improvement. 

Harry’s is a brand that have been around for many years, offering a great range of products, particularly the razors which I personally use. The product itself has a reusable handle, with disposable blades, minimising the amount of product that reaches landfill. 

Their marketing material focuses on their support of men’s mental health therefore a very ethical approach however, there isn’t a focus on their packaging. Even with reusable handles which can be made using a sustainable material, the disposable razor blades are still part of the product that doesn’t get recycled and will end up in landfill.

Despite having a reasonable sized range with varying types of packaging within their portfolio unfortunately some of Harry’s products still use plastic pouches for some of their products, which are not easily recyclable, if at all. Unfortunately, there isn’t any evidence of their packaging sustainability goals and aspirations readily available. As they are a mail order company they do use recyclable shipping packaging, although even with these, there are opportunities for design optimization. 

Image: Harry’s

Single-use plastics

Neutrogena Makeup remover singles pack of 20 is a great example of unnecessary amounts of single use plastic. Not only does each towelette have individual plastic heat sealed sachets, but they are collated inside a flexible multilayer plastic pouch with re-seal function.

There are other solutions which should be assessed and compared before selecting unnecessary amounts of single-use materials for example, replacing the flexible plastic pouch with a carton, constructed from 100% recycled material which can also be easily recycled after use. The carton could also offer additional functionality allowing for dispensing of the sachets.

From a shipping perspective to understand the optimum solutions, an LCA should be completed for both solutions. Cartons could be significantly smaller offering great utilisation of the cube for efficient shipping versus the carbon comparison of materials and processing. Data is key to driving optimum sustainable packaging selection. 

Images: Neutrogena

My thoughts on this market

Consumers still need to understand the truth about the products they buy and not be misled by a company’s claims. Whilst there is definitely progress being made, there is still a long way to go.  Thoughtful packaging design, and decision making made on data comparison whilst considering individual capabilities and constraints can deliver significant improvement and allow for brands and companies to clearly promote their sustainable improvements. Having the data to quantify and verify claims ensures consumers are provided with accurate information and avoids the risk of mis-guided claims and potential greenwash.   

Even Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal have been found guilty of misleading consumers with the sustainability claims of their bottles which resulted in considerable fines. 

Misleading claims do not only relate to plastics as some packaging structures made from cardboard may mislead you into thinking they are all recyclable, but this isn’t always the case. Recyclability is dependent on many factors (which differ by country / region / state) including internal and external finishes and laminates that have been chosen to give the product the premium look. 

The process for great structural packaging design should always be to consider the entire supply chain, from cradle to grave, including all the touch-points in between. It is crucial to understand all these elements when designing packaging, minimizing waste, reducing airspace (right sizing), ensuring that it is fit for purpose without being excessive and is as sustainable as possible. 

Structural packaging design should not be an afterthought, it is integral to your product. Not just a way of securing the product, but also to give shelf presence, product protection and can provide brand identification. I would like to see cosmetic brands improve their sustainable packaging credentials as if designed correctly and thoughtfully making these changes will only have a positive effect on their brand. 

At Aura we have a dedicated consulting team to help you find the perfect solution for your product, supply chain, budget, and the planet. We partner with our clients and develop packaging that has been responsibly designed – structurally, aesthetically and within your budget, ensuring products arrive at their destination as expected and use the most sustainable materials possible.


About the Author

Simon is a Structural Packaging Partner at Aura and has 30 year's experience in the packaging industry as a structural packaging designer. He has worked with major brands and retailers including Marks & Spencer, Target, Pier 1, Tesco, Remington and Russell Hobbs, and has experience working closely with Asia, India and North America markets.
Simon has extensive manufacturing experience across primary, secondary, tertiary and food packaging. He designs holistically with primary considerations being fit-for-purpose packaging, durability, optimization and sustainability.
Over the last 10 years Simon has worked closely with clients to understand and recommend changes to their supply chain to improve and reduce damages and costs.